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Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
1974
Studio: 
Icon
Genre: 
Horror
Format: 
Dual Format BD/DVD
Region: 
B
Aspect Ratio: 
various
Directed by: 
Terrence Fisher
Cast: 
Peter Cushing
Shane Briant
Madeline Smith
David Prowse
John Stratton
Movie: 
4
Extras: 
4
Bottom Line: 
4
Video: 
Click to Play

This seventh and final entry in Hammer’s Frankenstein series of Gothic horrors has never been taken for a particularly strong example of the company’s patented house style, coming as it did just as the studio found itself struggling through a particularly acute downturn in business which, as things unhappily transpired, also heralded its imminent end. By this stage, many of the key personnel who had been in at the beginning of the original creation in 1957 of the distinctive Hammer colour Gothic brand, when the release of “The Curse of Frankenstein” had changed the face of British horror forever, had either passed away (such as the company’s greatest production designer Bernard Robinson) or had voluntarily left the studio; the most notable departee being line producer and sometimes writer Anthony Hinds, whose contribution to the crafting of the aesthetics of Hammer’s take on the Gothic melodrama, during its Bray Studios heyday, was considered so important by some, and was so instrumental in determining the image the company was to subsequently project through its work, that director Don Sharp was once quoted as stating that Tony Hinds *was* Hammer. The ‘family atmosphere’ fostered at Bray had certainly disappeared once economics dictated the company’s move to Elstree Studios. But also, crucially, its legendary chairman James Carreras had by now retired and handed over complete control to his son Michael as well, perhaps noting the writing on the wall when it became apparent that the production model that relied on support and financing from the big American film companies (and which Carreras had once so masterfully overseen in the past) was fast becoming redundant as a result of further downturns in the western economy leading to recession and the Americans’ withdrawal from British film .

Even during his earlier career at Hammer, when he’d worked alongside his father, Tony Hinds and Anthony Nelson-Keys in the post of executive producer, Michael Carreras had never been particularly in tune with the studio’s horror output, and always pushed for the idea that it should be making ‘classier’ and more critically acceptable material as an alternative to increasingly over-extended attempts to shore up the old Gothic horror formula. By 1972 and the production of “Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell”, though, any thought of attempting anything more ambitious than this last desperate effort to revive former glories had more or less faded, as the money just wasn’t there anymore -- and Hammer was now relying on generic fare such as its film version of popular 70s TV comedy “On the Buses” just to survive. Having by now tried every variant of the old formula they could possibly think of -- from the tawdry 70s pin-up glamour Hammer managed to extract from the buxom lesbian vampires of its Karnstein series of pictures, to the Carnaby Street campery of the company’s first attempt to bring Dracula into a modern-day setting -- Carreras finally managed to persuade Paramount to finance yet another Frankenstein movie in a more traditional mould, this time with Peter Cushing returning to the role that first made him an international star, after an earlier Hammer experiment, Jimmy Sangster’s  “Horror of Frankenstein”, had half-heartedly attempted to replace him with a younger model (British actor Ralph Bates) while executing what turned out to be a misconceived and misguided self-satirising approach to the material. “Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell” was an attempt to return to Hammer Horror’s lost roots -- not to mock them; and the film was also to see Hammer’s most revered director Terrence Fisher helming what was in fact his first film for three years. This was clearly intended as an attempt to recapture the old magic by returning to what the company had always done best in the past.

There was a certain kind of logic to the thinking behind it. After all, though Hammer found itself negotiating turbulent waters, the brand was by now fully established, and a certain level of hard won critical reappraisal had attached itself to the name over the years, one effect of which was that Fisher was now starting to receive invitations to attend various film festivals as a guest of honour, and there had even been National Film Theatre retrospectives of his work. However, the budget he had to work with here was still one of the most economical of any of the company’s recent productions. Fisher’s health was not in a terribly good state by this point, either; he’d previously broken both of his legs, first one then the other, in two separate car accidents which had put him out of commission for some time. Michael Carreras reportedly considered obtaining funding from Paramount to make this movie in order to revive Fisher’s faltering career to be  repaying a debt of honour, but Cushing, too, was looking frail and gaunt these days, so much so that references to his air of tiredness and ill health were written into the script! He was coming back to the role of Frankenstein in a state of grief after the recent death of his wife Helen, having resolved to throw him-self into his work in an effort to cope. This led to his workload increasing, as the actor took virtually any job offered. Consummately professional as usual on screen (an archive copy of Cushing’s shooting script shows how it was still meticulously annotated with his detailed performance notes) the actor by all accounts became a shadow of his former self when off camera … Thus it is that the entirely intentional nostalgia which suffuses “Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell” lends the film a somewhat wistful air -- as though everybody involved in it is completely aware that this was effectively the end of the line. The screenplay was a re-tooled version of one of Tony Hinds’ unused older scripts (credited as usual to his writing non de plume John Elder) and was cast with a retinue of Hammer repertory veterans returning for one last bow, all of whom look determined to make the best of their valedictory performances. James Bernard’s score also attempts to recapture the old approach, and James Needs was brought in as editor, adding to the sense that this was to be a goodbye from the surviving members of the old team .

The story’s set-up is a piquant one that, in a way, only acknowledges the misguided futility of the company’s own previous attempts to groom younger replacements for its most famous leads. One of these was Hammer’s current ‘golden boy’ (literally, since the company had the naturally auburn actor dye his hair blonde) Shane Briant -- who is here playing a self-styled protégée of Baron Frankenstein, Dr Simon Helder, seen busying at the film’s start with following in the morally degenerative footsteps of his hero by imitating the Baron’s experiments with grave-robbed headless corpses procured from their resting places by a louche and dishevelled Patrick Troughton, who does a decent if brief turn at the start as a grog-imbibing alcoholic bodysnatcher. Caught in the act by Norman Mitchell’s portly, top hatted Bow Street Runner Troughton dobs in his ‘employer’ for a lighter sentence and Helder (played with a suitably nonchalant air of arrogance by Briant) finds himself in the dock. Unable to discern whether Helder’s dispassionate lack of repentance for his ungodly activities is down to an aristocratic sense of superiority or just sheer insanity, the judge commits the medical man to the state asylum for the criminally insane on a five year assessment. But, as luck would have it, it turns out that there is a precedent for the judge’s lenient decision -- which is probably what explains the otherwise somewhat unlikely coincidence of the original Baron Frankenstein himself (Peter Cushing) also turning out to be a resident in the same establishment, and one who very quickly recognises the value of the talents of his would-be imitator.

It also emerges that Frankenstein, now going under the assumed name Dr Carl Victor, has managed to acquire a peculiar hold over the asylum’s deliciously oleaginous director, Herr Klauss. There’s a lovely comic scene between Briant and actor John Stratton (who plays the simperingly odious Klauss) where the asylum director preens and fawns before the young student surgeon, fooled by the young man’s innate confidence into not realising that he’s a patient at the asylum rather than its latest medical assistant employee. The sequence concludes on a note of clownish embarrassment with the director obsequiously offering Helder a glass of sherry, whereupon the prisoner indicates with a nod the fact that he is wearing handcuffs! In fact, Dr ‘Victor’ has been given full access to roam the asylum as and when he pleases in the role of its medical supervisor, and, with Madeline Smith’s angelic mute inmate Sarah acting as his nurse and loyal student, is virtually running the place on a day-to-day basis -- to such an extent that he is even able to issue orders to the asylum’s rough-minded guards Ernst and Hans (Philip Voss and Christopher Cunningham) and scold Herr Klause when he proves so inconsiderate as to attempt the rape of one of the female inmates brought to his office, chastising the errant director with the stinging rebuke: ‘they’re *my* patients not yours!’

Cushing’s Baron is introduced by Fisher with a 70s crash zoom as he stands, austere and gaunt, in the doorway of his cell: a conscious image echo of Frankensteins past that recalls both Boris Karloff’s iconic entrance as the monster during James Whale’s 1931 film as well as Christopher Lee’s memorably dynamic first appearance as the creature for Fisher’s Hammer adaptation twenty-six years later -- indicating that by this point we are to regard Frankenstein himself as being the equivalent of one of his own creations. He has, after all, become what he has thanks to a lifetime’s obsessive pursuit of schemes that defile rather than create life and which were probably always best pursued within the hermetically sealed environs of an insane asylum anyway. The better part of the film involves the eager Helder being brought into the confidence of the obsessive Baron and learning all about what goes on in the secret laboratory/surgery he inevitably discovers attached as a wing to Frankenstein’s cell (which has been converted into a Spartan but peasant enough abode, tastefully decorated with medically-related paintings and etchings) and accessible through a hidden door that’s obscured behind a full size anatomy sketch filling a section of the cell wall.

The dating of this final instalment messes up the chronology of the Cushing/Hammer Frankenstein series by taking the story right back to the Regency (the previous film, “Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed”, was set in the late Victorian period), but the spirit of the Romantic era seems to provide the perfect setting for encapsulating that combination of vanity, airy aesthetic appreciation and single-minded ruthlessness which defines this later portrayal of the Baron. Wearing the same flouncy curly wig Cushing was seen sporting in the period horror “… And Now The Screaming Starts” (his previous film for Hammer’s rival, Amicus) this is a Frankenstein who seduces with his charming manners and deceives with his infectious enthusiasm for his diabolical work, only occasionally revealing the gimlet eyed hint of threat that underpins a determination to complete his insane project no matter the cost or who he corrupts.

Helder starts out by being trained to take over the Baron’s medical practice at the asylum so that Frankenstein may continue with his private ‘special work’. But he ends up helping his idol in his latest deranged scheme – an attempt to create new life from the various body parts of selected inmates, previously met by Helder during his introductory rounds. These include Charles Lloyd-Pack as gentle mathematics-appreciating composer Professor Durendel – who, though wrongly detained indefinitely for attacking the Director (his reasons turn out to be entirely understandable), is really here by clandestine arrangement in order to donate his brain so that it may power the hirsute troglodyte body of Herr Schnieder (David Prowse), whose incongruously hairless hands are supposed to belong to another sculptor inmate called Tarmut, played in a brief but poignant scene with Madeline Smith by Bernard Lee before Frankenstein arranges the pitiable soul’s untimely death. In some of the previous films in the series, the Baron has been presented as an ambivalent antihero whose motives are not always entirely condemnable outright. Here though Fisher and Cushing recapitulate the portrait of an elegantly refined sociopath that was glimpsed way back at the start of the series in “The Curse of Frankenstein”: for this is clearly the same man who once hurled his elderly mentor over a bannister in order to harvest his professorial victim’s brain for his first foolhardy experiment. Fisher sets out to show the Baron as nakedly evil and as someone who is simply utterly without regard for the human life he *must* destroy in order to complete his self-aggrandising projects, which, in this case, no-one outside the asylum will ever even see anyway.

As though to re-emphasise the fact of the Baron’s remorselessness and his single-minded monomania, the odds n’ bods creature that is assembled as a result of his combining an assortment of bits and pieces taken from the imprisoned patients (whose welfare is only of concern to the Baron in so far as they have certain organs he wishes to procure from them after he’s arranged their premature deaths) is the most pitiable and grotesque out of all those created across the entire breadth of Hammer’s filmography; a Neanderthal “throwback” with homicidal tendencies described as being more animal than human, who harbours a fascination with broken glass (‘he likes stabbing people in the face with it’).  Eddie Knight’s misshapen hairy ape-man makeup was in fact the result of a costume built up from a wet suit base and topped off with a moulded mask, and only took Prowse a short amount of time to get into, despite its extreme (some might say absurd) profile, which is augmented in its grisliness by badly patched-up wounds supposed to have been obtained after the inmate threw himself thirty feet from his cell window to his near death on the courtyard below. The Baron’s restorative surgery skills have been considerably hampered by his hands having previously been rendered useless from being burned in the fire that occurred at the climax of “Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed”, forcing him -- until the fortuitous appearance of Dr Helder -- to make use of Sarah as his trainee surrogate, and thus explaining the amateurish botched job he’s made of the jigsaw body part assembly. It’s fair to say that this isn’t exactly the prettiest looking of the Baron’s creations.

As a result of grim details such as the above, “Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell” combines its traditionalism with a new emphasis on gory charnel house imagery, executed in a manner that is quite unlike the refined Hammer’s style of old. In fact, if it had been released ten years later, there’s a good chance this film could even have found itself labelled a video nasty. It’s not just the fact that its attempt to fan the embers of its 1950s reputation for bloodletting results in by far the bloodiest of all Hammer’s pictures; but that there’s an unusual sense of nihilism underlying the film’s depiction of Frankenstein’s profane defilement of and disregard for the sanctity of the human body, only rivalled by the deep rooted pessimism and despair one habitually encounters in the otherwise un Hammer-like films of Lucio Fulci, where the body is routinely depicted as nothing but a material thing -- a sack of decaying skin and offal, its corporeal nature converting it to a mere symbol for the abject. Here, too, when a jar of plucked out eyeballs is dropped from a lab bench, it shatters and leaves a squelchy mess on which the camera is compelled to linger for longer than seems strictly necessary. After the discarded brain of a transplant patient is unceremoniously tossed into a basin on the floor, it is then shown being accidently trodden on by Frankenstein in his haste to complete the next procedure; and at the very climax of the film, instead of the usual fiery conflagration or energetic confrontation between protagonist and antagonist, the pathetic monster, after first despatching the Director with a very Fulci-esque flourish (namely a shard of broken glass thrust into his jugular) is merely cornered and set upon then literally torn apart -- its innards gleefully tossed about the blood-soaked passageways of the lunatic asylum by marauding inmates recently let loose … The biggest set-piece of the entire movie is the lengthy depiction of a brain transplant operation, which lovingly details the hacking away of the top of the skull and the careful removal of the brain (complete with visible tumour!) from its bloody cavity.

Such uncharacteristically gruelling imagery was seemingly Hammer’s confused way of trying to stay relevant to the present age, even as it sought to revive the quaint forms of its own past. It’s also the reason why this film, whatever the critical consensus about it might happen to be, will always have a special place in my heart, since it was my first encounter as a horror obsessed youngster (who was rarely actually allowed to watch the films he read about) with the reality of on-screen gore, thanks to my catching it in a late slot one night on ITV, not long after being allowed a television in my room for the first time. Having survived seeing the infamous brain removal sequence (I think it was screened uncensored but I can’t be sure), which, unlike in most of the other films I’d been exposed to at this point, didn’t once cut away from the unedifying spectacle it documented, I felt ready for anything!

This unusual level of on-screen gore also helped accentuate Cushing’s portrayal of the Baron as a man so driven by his scientific zeal that his obliviousness to suffering tips him over the boundary dividing sanity from madness, with the film ending on Helder’s realisation that he is trapped in Hell with a lunatic. Cushing is able to extract macabre humour from the Baron’s tucking into a meal of kidneys seconds after a bloody operation, or his obliviousness to the irony inherent in his dismissal of a patient who thinks he’s God as someone who is ‘suffering from a common enough delusion’; but he also displays the extent of Frankenstein’s zealotry when he is shown determinedly clamping an artery with his bare teeth during one particularly difficult procedure. The final indicator of Frankenstein’s rabid psychopathy is revealed when Professor Durendel’s refined mathematical brain is overpowered by the brutish biochemistry of Herr Schneider’s troglodyte body, and the maths problem-solving creature starts to rediscover the latter’s taste for attacking people with bits of sharp glass. The Baron proposes saving the experiment by mating the hulking homicidal creature he has created with the innocent Sarah, believing (for reasons that make no biological sense whatsoever) that the resulting offspring will be free of the taint of biochemical evil that has come to taint his worthy efforts, because Sarah’s innate goodness and purity will act as a counterbalancing influence!

Unfortunately, by the time the movie was actually released to the public belatedly in 1974, two years after its production, cinema audiences were to prove mostly unimpressed with Fisher’s efforts to give birth to his outmoded throwback, however much blood and brains were strewn around the cramped sets of Elstree Studios in Hammer’s cause. For by this point “The Exorcist” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” had both come along to transform the horror landscape as radically and irreversibly as Hammer once had in 1957 when Fisher had directed “The Curse of Frankenstein” Only now can we look back at the film and see it divorced from the original cinematic landscape of its day -- in which it must have appeared hopelessly out of date, no matter how much Kensington Gore it sprayed around – and view it alongside its Hammer Horror peers instead, where it actually holds up rather well, especially now that high definition has revealed new subtleties in the lighting ideas used for Brian Probyn’s cinematography, with its Barry Lyndon-esque natural candlelight effects only accentuating the efficacy of Scott MacGregor’s scrupulously authentic period art direction. Cushing may have been privately spiritually bereft, but his performance is note-perfect throughout. Briant and Madeline Smith lend able support, and the likes of John Stratton, Charles Lloyd-Pack, Bernard Lee and Sydney Bromley add considerable emotional colour to the movie’s otherwise unusually austere palette. David Prowse, too, deserves credit for conveying the ape-creature’s hopeless struggle to rise above its biochemical destiny, effectively miming under layers of hair and rubber, the profound horror of Professor Durendel’s predicament.

 The dual format, triple disc Blu-ray/DVD package from Icon Entertainment offers the film in both its 1.66:1 theatrical ratio and an un-matted 1.33:1 ratio that provides more visual information at the top and bottom of the screen. This has the marginally better transfer, although the theatrical version looks the more compositionally balanced of the two versions to my eyes. Both transfers restore all the previously cut sections of the movie, such as the artery clamping scene, making this the most complete version of the movie in existence. The extra features are slightly thinner on the ground here than in previous Lionsgate/Icon Hammer releases but what we do get is extremely welcome. Marcus Hearn provides the production facts and figures as well as helping actors Shane Briant and Madeline Smith recall the atmosphere of the set (Smith in particular seems very attuned to the mood of the cast and crew during the making of the film) via recalled anecdotes and spontaneous conversation in an audio commentary recorded back in 2011. A new Making Off documentary entitled “Taking Over The Asylum: The Making of Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell”, produced by Hearn for Flashpoint Media and running at 24 minutes, 44 seconds, features Hammer scholars Denis Meikle and Jonathan Rigby; Cushing biographer David Miller; and surviving cast members Madeline Smith, Shane Briant, David Prowse, Philip Voss (the asylum jailer, Ernst) and  Janet Hargreaves (one of the asylum inmates, ‘Chatterer’) in a thorough and informative look back at the circumstances pertaining to the production and release of the film. In addition, there’s a 12 minute, 48 second long appreciation of the career of Terrence Fisher, “Charming Evil: Terrence Fisher at Hammer”, featuring contributions from Fisher’s daughter Micky Harding and festival organiser Sue Cowie, who talks about Fisher’s introduction to the film festival circuit and his reaction to meeting fans of his work for the first time. There is also an amusing anecdote about the director’s reaction to seeing Jess Franco’s “El conde Drácula”, also starring Christopher Lee in the role of the Count! Finally, an animated stills gallery (7 minutes, 21 seconds) features film posters (including  one for an unlikely pairing with the Shaw Brothers distributed Kung-Fu actioner “The Fists of Vengeance”), press book images ,film stills and glamour shots of Madeline Smith to round off what is a very welcome HD release of what has often been in the past an unfairly maligned signing off by Terrence Fisher on the Gothic formula he helped to create.

 

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!!

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